Stephen R. Polk: Philanthropic leader, penguin pal

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo was built in part with a $10-million gift from Stephen Polk and his wife, Bobbi

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

It’s been a banner summer for Stephen R. Polk — businessman, sailor, college trustee, wildlife enthusiast and Detroit Zoo board member.

Polk, 61, of Bloomfield Hills has enjoyed time Up North with his family, including sailing his SC70 Evolution to a fourth-place finish in the Chicago to Mackinac race and third place in the Port Huron to Mackinac race. On land, he was named chairman of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

And then there is the continuing success of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo, built in part with a $10-million gift from him and his wife, the biggest donation in the zoo’s 89-year history.

In its first six months, the 33,000-square foot, $30-million exhibit has already drawn 1 million visitors and is expected to draw millions more in the coming years.

“It’s the best exhibit of its kind in the world,” said Polk, CEO of Highgate LLC, an investment group in Birmingham. “It is truly something remarkable and something we all can enjoy and use as an educational tool.”

Polk’s accomplishments and roots in Michigan run as deep as the Great Lakes. He has taken a philanthropic and active role in groups as diverse as the Automotive Hall of Fame, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Economic Club and the Cranbrook Educational Community.

He has been on the Detroit Zoo’s board of directors since 1989, following a father and brother. He has a bachelor of science degree in biology from Denison University, a private college in Ohio, where he sits on the board of trustees.

He was graduate teaching assistant in a research program at Northern Michigan University in 1979, studying woodpeckers, when called back to the family business — R.L. Polk, formed in 1870 as a business directory publishing business that in the 1920s transitioned into automotive information and marketing solutions.

He became R.L. Polk’s chairman, president and CEO until the company was sold in 2013 to IHS Inc. (now IHS Markit)  for an estimated $1.4 billion. About the same time, his passion and involvement in wildlife study was broadening well beyond the zoo at Woodward and 10 Mile.

“Timing was coincidental. I was on the zoo’s board and things just seemed to conspire together for the penguin exhibit,” Polk said. “The zoo was talking about the future needs to house the penguins, Polk was being sold. (The exhibit) was needed and is important.”

Fellow board member Julie Nicholson, a judge in Rochester Hills 52-3 District Court, said Polk deserves to be honored.

“There’s no question (the penguin center) would not exist today without his help,” she said. “I have enjoyed visiting it several times myself and taken my nieces and nephews to see it.”

As for Michigan, Polk said he feels things have never been brighter, especially for Detroit, as it has climbed out of the recession with the rest of the state.

“I see (economic) growth going on that is sustainable and not dependent on the auto industry,” Polk said. “I’ve never seen such positive changes taking place — building, people moving back downtown — and I believe it will be going on for some time to come.”

“People across the state see the need for Detroit to prosper for the good of the entire state. We have a common objective and seem to be all paddling together on this.”

Stephen R. Polk

Age: 61

Occupation: CEO of Highgate LLC

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Denison University

Family: Wife, Bobbi; four adult children

Why honored: Commitment to wildlife education and primary donor for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo

Other Michiganians:Odis Bellinger | Debbie Dingell | Allie Greenleaf Maldonado | Shell Jones | Kary L. Moss | Matthew Simoncini | Fred Upton | Mark Wallace